20 April 2010

Hawass Smacks Maimonides

Hawass gives Maimonides the finger.

Haaretz reports on a less-known side of Zahi Hawass:
The head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities said that "he gave the Zionist enemy a slap in the face," when he canceled the inauguration of a restored Cairo synagogue two weeks ago, Army Radio reported on Sunday.

"Israel is the Zionist enemy, and I gave this enemy a strong slap in the face," said Doctor Zahi Hawass.

Hawass, dubbed the "Egyptian Indiana Jones," is known worldwide as responsible for all the ancient sites in Egypt including the pyramids and the pharaohs' treasures.

Throughout the years, Zahi Hawass has expressed his stance against normalization of ties with Israel, but has yet to refer to Israel as "the enemy."

Two weeks ago, Egypt has canceled the inauguration of a restored synagogue citing the Israeli oppression of Muslims in the occupied territories as well as excesses by Jews during an earlier ceremony at the synagogue.
I must point out the obvious – Hawass, no stranger to controversy or poor taste – makes himself downright grotesque with a statement like this. It's nonsense anyway: the Maimonides synagogue in question cannot be ‘Zionist’ because there was no such thing Zionism in the 12th century. What he means is ‘I gave a slap in the face to Jews’. It's a shame that Maimonides, the great doctor, philosopher, and scholar, gets dragged into the mud here.

But by the same token, let’s not pretend this is some kind of uniquely shocking act. Many Arab governments, and especially totalitarian dictators like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, use Jew-hating in an ritual way to distract their citizens from their economic and social discontents. (Yet another reason why the Zionist extremism currently ascendant in Israel is so problematic: it gives the tyrants an easy target when they need to let their people blow off steam, without having to change anything at home.) Denouncing the “Zionist entity” in the Arab and Muslim worlds is routine to the point of being boring - it's only shocking here because of Hawass' international standing.

Does Hawass mean what he says? I'm not sure it matters. As master of Egypt’s antiquities, Hawass is a high government official. In November, he was appointed Vice Minister of Culture, which conveniently means that he is now exempt from the mandatory retirement laws for civil service, and does not have to give up his directorship of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Hawass would never have got so far if he stopped doing the bidding of the men higher up the ladder in the Mubarak regime. If the state policy is anti-Semitic, occasional gestures such as this are the price that he, or anyone else holding his post, would have to pay to remain in the position. That said, Wikipedia does point to a few other public statements of his about the "bloodsucking Jew", so who knows what he really believes. But anyway, it's more spiritually corrupt to say prejudiced things when you don't mean them, than when you do.

We like to think that archaeology is just fun science, a kind of pure contemplative pursuit that is far from the pigsties of political machination. In the United States you can keep this illusion very nicely, since there’s not a national heritage organization and the Feds don’t get very involved in archaeology (in most states anyway). In most countries, where the government owns EVERYTHING old and can take it from their citizens whenever it feels like, it’s a less easy to avoid the political realities that beset the field. When the state owns all archaeology, and the state is totalitarian, how do you keep your hands clean as an archaeologist?


  1. Great story, Dan - I'll be sharing on FB. (The next is just a response to something in your story, not disagreement! -R):

    But any American archaeologists/arch students who believe that archaeology of all things is apolitical have received one heckuvan incomplete education! Just cause the Feds aren't up in your face all the time doesn't mean there's not tons of heritage issues with native American artifacts and remains, etc. Plus then there's the interpretation - sometimes it seems like archaeology is only funded so it can legitimize all manner of nationalist narratives (who was where first, identity politics, etc.)

    On a related note, I remember speakers coming to my inner city, primarily African-American high school to tell us the pharaohs and Socrates were black, with all manner of slides of pyramids, mummies, and busts... and this at an age when most of us knew nothing about arch beyond Indiana Jones...

    -Ricardo Apostol

  2. wow, this goes right in line with a Vonnegut short story I recently finished that made me think about the ties between archaeology and government. It involved Soviet paleontologists looking at ant fossils of a very advanced ant species that they interpreted as having met doom, complete with ant-gulags, under an emergent group of ant-totalitarians... It didn't end well for the paleontologists either, or their science.

    It's unfortunate much of the politics controlling archaeology continues to be linked to race and religion. I'm glad the US has no national head to make a fool of themself- just as well, since US media scapegoats/distractants seem to be bankers and adulterous governors and golfers (and of course, al-Qaeda).

  3. Hawass should be muzzeled. He does a disservice to archaeology.